FEDCO wants out of Carp Airport biz

CARP – While there seems to be issues to work out between hangar owners and the Carp Airport owner, the city’s Finance and Economic Development committee (FEDCO) recommends waiving the city’s option to re-purchase lands around the Carp Airport for $4.4 million.

FEDCO met today (Groundhog Day) to discuss the issue in advance of a March 11 deadline for the city to enact its three re-purchase options regarding the Carp Airport.

If the city exercised the re-purchase options, it would have to pay $592,000 for the roughly 272 acres of future development land under the agreement.

In the end, FEDCO voted in favour or releasing property re-purchase options at the airport and restructuring the agreement with airport owners West Capital Development (WCD).

A screengrab from today's FEDCO meeting.
FEDCO listened to six delegations today that described a clear divide between the Carp Airport owners and those who own hangars there. Screengrab

The city sold the Carp Airport in 2011 to WCD but retained options to reacquire some of the property in 10 years if WCD didn’t meet development obligations. Under the new proposed agreement (once council approves it Feb. 10) the owners will continue to operate the airport and implement an economic development plan which mostly involves the development of the surrounding lands. The city would negotiate amendments to the existing agreement with WCD, enabling the developer to better implement its economic development plan for both the airport and the surrounding lands.

The city is also backing away from an option to reacquire lands core to the operations of the airport. This will allow WCD to pursue private financing for projects. Under the new agreement, the city would no longer have a say over airport operations.

The agreement would also ensure the airport continues operations for 40 more years, with the city asking WCD to produce a $1 million performance bond for the first 20 years. If financial problems force the owner to close the airport at some point over those 40 years, the city can step in to take over operation of the airport using the bond to support the management.

“The city will have the opportunity to ensure the airport is in operation for the next 40 years,” city manager of Reality, Initiatives and Development Peter Radke said.

WCD President Andrew Wildeboer was on hand to address FEDCO.

“(The recommendations) accurately reflects the terms our partners agreed to,” Wildeboer told the meeting attendees. “We feel we’ve done a great job of operating the airport and honouring our commitments.”

Wildeboer said the airport business is a challenging one with nearby competition in Arnprior, Gatineau and other areas.

“The Carp Airport has competitors,” he said. “Not all issues are easy to fix. The real discussion is the release, to ensure we would develop the lands, which we are.”

Wildeboer complimented FEDCO member and Ward 5 Coun. Eli El-Chantiry and staff “for championing the asset.”

“This new agreement will increase tax revenue for the city, extend the service of the airport for 40 years and in return we get to develop the surrounding property.”

The agreement has several of the airport’s hangar owners concerned due to what they feel is a slightly contentious relationship with the current owners and are concerned the new agreement will allow WCD to erode services at the airport. As such, the meeting included six public delegations (as well as three submitted letters) wishing to discuss the issue. Three of the delegations were made up of hangar owners and airport users.

The group of hangar owners at the meeting say they have put in roughly $25 million worth of infrastructure at the airport not even including their airplanes. The hangar owners own (and built) the hangars at the airport and lease the land from the airport owners.

They were already upset with WCD when the company closed the 3,000-foot gravel runway at the airport last summer. The hangar owners feel, with the investment they have made in the airport, they deserve a bigger voice at the table and more certainty the airport is going to be around for a long time.

Pilot Dave McIver, who rented a hangar for years before buying one at the airport, feels the staff report which includes input from WCD, doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It paints a picture all is good and WCD has done a wonderful job,” he said. “In some ways they have.”

McIver says he is fine with the development of surrounding land as long is it “does not affect core airport land and they will not modify the core airport.”

McIver says he would like to see four-year land leases made available to hangar owners to help avoid “surprises or massive rent increases down the road.”

“My intentions aren’t to fight with WCD, but to ensure the airport continues to operate,” McIver said. “It’s a valuable asset. We want a financing plan that does not include cutting up pieces of the airport. All I ask is you take a hard look at what is being presented and ensure the future of the airport.”

John Nicol also has misgivings about the airport operators.

“There are inaccuracies in the report,” he said. “The idea hangar owners are involved in the decision-making process is not correct. We received one 15-minute presentation where no input was taken.”

Nicol said there were also safety concerns he feels users had but were not reciprocated by the operators.

“Ice and snow came off a hangar and nearly hit a plane and some people,” he said. “A car received $8,000 in damage. We were told the car shouldn’t have parked there. We had to fight with them to write up the incident.”

Nicol hopes communication will improve between the hangar owners and the airport owners.

“We do have concerns,” he said. “There is not a good relationship between the tenants and operators and the owners. We need improved communication.”

Carp Airport manager Pat Fagnano also attended the meeting.

Fagnano has 33 years experience in the air transportation industry including time at the Toronto Port Authority.

He took the Carp job “based on the understanding WCD was committed to the long-term operation of the airport.”

Fagnano feels removing the gravel airport was not a safety concern but is something that will put the airport in a better position “to use capital resources for airfield improvements including the development of additional hangars (this quote is from a letter Fagnano sent to hangar owners last spring, as documented in the above link to the previous story).

Fagnano says the gravel runway was not in great shape, incurred high maintenance costs due to things like frost heaving, and did not provided much use for its costs. The runway is not lit, and its size is only useful to small, single-engine airplanes.

“Does removal create a safety issue?” he asked. “I disagree. This is not a safety related issue. Using the runway as an alternate is only true if it is a small, single-engine plane. We have an aircraft emergency removal plan in place.”

Still, the hangar owners want their opinions considered by the operators.

“We are the people who have put in $25 million of our own money in to infrastructure and we need to have a voice at the table,” Mark Briggs, who has been a hangar owner since 2006, said. “We have significant concerns with the report, and we want to ensure long-term viability. If the airport closes, it will leave all of us hangar owners sitting out in the breeze.”

Briggs says WCD as an owner “has been as hands off, do as little as possible.”

He called the airport’s safety management plan required by federal oversight as “lip service.”

“The hangar owners own the hangars,” Briggs said. “They built the buildings on leased land. They own everything inside and outside the hangars.”

The final hangar owner presenting to FEDCO was Perry Kelly who has been flying out of Carp since the early ‘90s.

“I echo their comments,” he said of the other presenters. “We are fueling the economy out there. We did that based on the agreement between the city and WCD. We simply want them to live up to the agreement. Nothing more. There’s no transparency. I’ve never been invited to a meeting. I’ve never received meeting minutes.”

Wildeboer says WCD does take input from the hangar owners.

“We have an advisory committee,” he said. “We set it up after the agreement in 2011.”

Wildeboer says the committee has two spots for hangar or business interests on the committee.

Coun. El-Chantiry says the city’s position is obvious.

“We made it clear we want that airport to stay open in Carp,” he said. “We were very clear.”

While El-Chantiry says he is respectful of the fact the committee is made up of private business interests, but suggested the committee add a spot for a city councillor or two, which he feels might help with the aforementioned communication issues between the airport owner and its tenants.

“It will give us an opportunity to hear from residents and tenants,” he said.

If council endorses the recommendation, the city will be officially out of the airport business, following a trend as the municipality has already divested itself from equestrian (Wesley Clover Park) and golf course (Pineview) businesses over the last 10 years.

Recommendations from today’s FEDCO meeting will rise to council for consideration on Wednesday, Feb. 10.